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Olympic torch should shine on athletes not nations


'Olympia' by Chris JohnstonGuor Marial is a South Sudanese refugee who has won a battle to compete in the Olympic marathon as an independent athlete.

He cannot represent the United States — where he lives — because he is not a citizen. He says competing for Sudan would amount to betraying fellow South Sudanese who died for their freedom. He is unable to compete for South Sudan because it has not yet set up an Olympic committee.  

He had to fight for the right to compete as an independent, yet attention to the individual's natural ability and performance — rather than nationality — is consistent with the spirit of both the ancient and modern Olympics.

Nationalism is the scourge of the modern Olympics. We've become more interested in the performances of nations than those of great athletes. Our eyes are on the medal tally because it proves we are better than Great Britain or some other nation. We slide too easily from speaking of 'how our athletes are doing' to 'how we are doing'.

The Australian Government is complicit. The feeling of national shame following our inability to win a single gold medal at the 1976 Montreal Games prompted the Government to establish the Australian Institute of Sport and put large amounts of public money into training athletes. It worked. We can once again count ourselves among the greatest sporting nations on earth, even if in truth we are one of the greatest per capita sports funding nations on earth.

Nationalism in the Olympics is just as strong among nations competing to host the event. Many of us recall with pride the words of IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch — 'The winner is Sydney' — when Australia won the rights to host the 2000 Games. And his declaration after the event that it had been 'the best Games ever'. 

The most chilling and frequently quoted example of the manipulation of the Olympic Games for the purpose of promoting one nation's pretence to greatness was the 1936 'Nazi' Olympics in Berlin.

What are we to make of the many nations that lack the wealth to host the Olympics? Are they not great?

There are ways of curing the Olympics of nationalism. These might include discontinuing the playing of national anthems when medals are awarded, and discouraging the publication of medal tallies. 

More radical would be the establishment of a fixed host city for the Olympic Games, such as Olympia in Greece. It would likely introduce more problems than it solves, but we might even conceive of Olympia as a city state like the Vatican, and the Olympic Movement as a body capable of standing up to nationalism. Guor Marial and other stateless athletes would be treated as equals.

Michael MullinsMichael Mullins is editor of Eureka Street.


Topic tags: Michael Mullins, Guor Marial, Olympics, nationalism, Olympia, Olympic Games, sport



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Existing comments

Michael, thank you and I agree. One way to start would be to display medals won per nation in order of per capita. Asmall nation with one medal topping the big nations with many medals. Might make people think. Bill Spillane

Bill Spillane | 30 July 2012  

The Olympics were put into perspective for me with an interview with Haile Gebrselassie the Ethopian winner of the 10000m in Sydney. When asked what he put his win down to, he replied, "When I was born there was food."

Bradley | 30 July 2012  

Some fine thoughts in this article, Michael. Australia does take great pride in sporting success - perhaps too much so. I always find it a little discomforting to watch the emotion on athletes' faces as their national anthem is played at a medal ceremony. Their emotion may only partly be provoked by 'pride in country' though as the individual effort involved in reaching that sort of success should provoke a very personal reaction. Having the Olympic Games in one venue could be problematic - we wouldn't want another city state like the Vatican behaves (at present!). And Guor Marial: I'll be watching out for you in the marathon.

Pam | 30 July 2012  

Couldn't agree more! It might even put a stop to journalists' negative reporting if an athlete doesn't live up to all the hype.

Pauline Power | 30 July 2012  

Great stuff Michael - truly radical. Substituting the term "militarism" for "nationalism" (all that precise marching about and synchronised patriotic display of opening and closing ceremonies in the best totalitarian tradition)works just as well. Pretty sure the Vatican is no model for compassionate, enlightened, egalitarian humanity, however.

Michelle Goldsmith | 30 July 2012  

Athletes competing as Independent competitors at the London Olympics are fortunate to be able to do so. At the 1968 Mexico Olympics, black African marathon runner Mathias Kanda and his black African 5000m track teammate Bernard Dzoma were not so fortunate. They were the first black athletes, and possibly the only black athletes in Olympic history to be banned from Olympic competition because they were members of the Olympic team for Rhodesia. The irony was that Rhodesia was banned for alleged apartheid policies at the time. In fact, while South Africa had a de jure law of the land apartheid policy, Rhodesia did not. Its Olympic sporting organisations had a multi-racial policy which welcomed black athletes. Bernard and Mathias, in fact, were the only two athletes, black or white, chosen in 1968 to represent Rhodesia in athletics in Mexico. A number of white track and field champions missed selection. When Mathias got news of the ban he said :if I can\t run for my country, I will run for fun." He was banned from doing either. Bernard never got to represent his country in the Olympics. Mathias died in 2009, and Bernard during the London Olympic Games is currently visiting his daughter in Canberra where she works as a nurse. The International Olympic Federation, and the world of sport in general, owes these two great black African champions a debt it can never repay.

John Bell | 30 July 2012  

Thanks, Michael, for a really both interesting, and insightful article. I'd never thought of that. Admittedly, for lack of a better word, traditionally, I've always been a tad emotional when, on our athlete's being presented with their medals, I, too, have been tad choked with emotion, but now you mention it, I probably shouldn't be. Far from me being guilty about it, it probably does smack a bit of nationalism, at the expense of poor nations in particular, and is, in turn, perhaps a bit, if you will, anthropocentric. It DOES indeed make me think.

Phillip | 30 July 2012  

Like it or not, Nationalism is part of who we are, just like each living cell that makes up our body is a part of a limb or an organ. Nationalism like most material things can be helpful or harmful. Hopefully controlled nationalism in sport will make asocial nations more open and cooperative, for the benefit of each and all. We all need to realise that 'greater' nations have greater responsibilities for fair play.

Robert Liddy | 30 July 2012  

guess what? If the athletes competed as individuals the Australian media would still report that an Aussie won, failed was out of condition. Media around the world would still report so that nationalism, local pride would still exist. And funding? particularly for the less fashionable sports would go away. Nationalism like most human emotions can be good, bad, indifferent. Utopians tend to live in a world most of us could not understand, let alone tolerate.

Brian Poidevin | 30 July 2012  

Well said Michael.The propagation of nationalism only leads to greater hostilities and wars between nations.Isn't time we grew up as a species and chose co-operation over competition.And having a fixed host city makes a lot of sense in terms of the amount of money spent and the chewing up of the earth's resources to host one of these events.

terry fitz south brisbane | 30 July 2012  

Interesting thought, Michael, but hardly a realistic solution, and I feel is is somewhat a copout. There is nothing wrong to be proudly called Australian, and for those with problems, there is now the solution to compete as independent. We should learn to live together with other Nations and separate sport and politics. What do you think for instance in another direction of not wanting to be called a Catholic because of feelings of shame re the scandals of paedophilia, Vatican Bank crimes. Vatileaks, treatment of women etc. and just be called "Christians"?

Peter M | 30 July 2012  

I cannot understand how expressing a view about the Olympics in Eureka Street, turns out to be a vicious attack on the Vatican. I thought that Eureka Street was mainly for Catholics to express their views on different topics, not to rubbish the Vatican.

Ron Cini | 30 July 2012  

Perfectly stated.

Bernadette | 03 August 2012  

I fully agree with the comments made by Ron Cini.

John Tobin. | 03 August 2012  

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